Although some people are more direct than others as a matter of personality (and there is a gender stereotype than women are less direct than men), most people do use at least a little indirectness in most situations to minimize perceived social threats (or “face threats,” as discussed in the power & solidarity module), increasing their level of indirectness in situations that involve greater risks. Most people tend to be more direct in their online communications, because without all the visual and vocal cues, indirectness is at greater risk of being misunderstood. Most people tend to be completely direct only
- when the situation is urgent (so there’s no time for politeness),
- when the message is extremely important (so they don’t want to risk it being misunderstood), or
- when they are angry or otherwise extremely emotional (in which case others understand the directness as an effect of being “overpowered” by one’s emotions).
Therefore, if you speak directly all the time, you will be perceived as angry and as arrogant, because you seem to think everything you say is vitally important, more important than what everyone else is saying. If you don’t vary your style, becoming increasingly indirect when committing more socially threatening acts, you will come across as rude (brusque, abrupt, cold, uncaring, etc.), because you don’t seem to care about others’ needs.
You don’t need to change your speech style dramatically or waste much time to add a little bit of indirectness, if you just want to show continual attention to others’ feelings. That indirectness can function as social lubricant, insulating the relationship from the bumps and jolts it would otherwise routinely suffer. If you incorporate this into your speech regularly, it becomes a habit; after a bit of practice, you will no longer have to think about it, so you won’t perceive it as an effort or a waste of time. (This is, of course, how most people do it: on “autopilot.”) Then, when you recognize a greater social threat, you can deliberately and strategically increase your indirectness. It may take you an extra minute to re-craft a sentence to be less direct (and it may require more words or even extra sentences to accomplish), but you should think of this as an investment of time, not a waste: if you are more polite, people will be more willing to comply with your requests, to work with you, and you will avoid the time that would otherwise be spent resolving frustrating miscommunications and making up for unintended hurting of feelings.
Search for the relevance of what they did say. There are dozens (actually, more!) ways that speakers can express any given message with varying levels of (in)directness. But they don’t just choose one at random. Always ask yourself, “Why would this person say these particular words to me in this particular way at this particular time?” For instance, if someone says, “It’s getting late,” why do you think they felt the need to point this out? If you’re working on a task together, perhaps they’re worried you won’t finish it on time. (In this case, they probably said it anxiously.) If you’re visiting in their home, perhaps they’d like you to leave now so they can go to bed. (In which case, they probably said it tiredly.) If they’re visiting in your home, they’re probably signalling that they’ll be leaving very soon, so they can go to bed. Etc.
Of course, we make inferences all the time in conversation, not just when someone is being indirect for politeness reasons. Imagine how much detail we’d have to give in casual conversation if we couldn’t trust people to “connect the dots.” Our conversations would never end! (If you say “Let’s go to the Golden Dragon for dinner,” I can just say “I don’t like buffets.” I don’t have to say “I don’t like buffets, and the Golden Dragon only has a buffet, you can’t order off a menu there, so let’s go somewhere else.”) I expect you to understand the relevance of my comment to your suggestion, and to make the correct inferences accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Most people are so accustomed to expressing themselves indirectly (for politeness reasons, to minimize perceived social threats) that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. If you suspect that they aren’t directly saying what they mean, that there’s some other message they’re hoping you’ll decode, ask them! Of course you should ask them nicely; there’s no reason to accuse them of being deceptive or sneaky or impossible to understand or…. Most of the time, they’re being indirect in a (perhaps misguided) attempt to protect your feelings. In the “It’s getting late,” example, it would be fine to say, “Yes, it is, but I’m not sure why you’re bringing it up. Do you need to get going?”
Ways of Being Indirect: Strategies You Can Live Without
Metaphors and Similes
There is no reason for you yourself to incorporate metaphors or similes into your speech, if you do not enjoy them, and there is no reason for you not to ask someone to elaborate on or explain their metaphors and similes. If they make a statement of comparison or equivalence, and you’re not sure which trait(s) the statement is intended to evoke, feel free to say (going back to the snake example), “I’m not sure what you mean by that. Are you saying he’s sneaky or potentially dangerous, or both?” If someone says “She’s a Porsche, not a Hyundai,” you might gather that this is intended as a compliment, but you might still ask, “Do you mean she’s beautiful and exciting, or that she has really expensive tastes?” If you’re not familiar with Porsches and/or Hyundais, you might say, “Sorry, I know those are cars, but that’s all I know about them, so I have no idea what you’re saying about her.”
Essential Ways of Being Indirect
disguised commands and requests for action
People bark commands at their dogs (“Sit! Stay!”), but in most human-to-human interactions, this is highly marked and socially threatening behavior. Even if I have the “right” to order you around (a parent to a child, a teacher to a student, a boss to an employee, etc.), completely ignoring your feelings is likely to damage our relationship over time. For this reason, people tend to avoid using bare imperatives, unless it’s clear that the situation is urgent, or that I’m “ordering” you to do something I think you want to do; for example, a hostess urging a guest: “Come in! Sit down! … Have a cookie!”
How Commands are Made Listener-Friendly
- “Could/can you …?”
- “Would/will you …?”
- “Would you mind …?”
- “Could I ask you to …?”
- “Do you think you should…?” etc.
Note that these sound even friendlier when hedges are added in:
- “Could/can you possibly/perhaps…?”
- “Would you mind perhaps/maybe…?”
- “Could I ask you to just…?”
- “Do you think you should maybe…?” etc.
Likewise, a command may be disguised as a statement, which sounds slightly more forceful than the question forms (but again, hedging helps defuse the forcefulness):
- “I would (really) like it if you would (just)…” (friendlier)
- “I think you should maybe…” (friendly-ish)
- or just “You should…” (not very friendly)
How Can You Tell if a Command (or Request for Action) is Implied?
- A future action is specified or implied.
- The speaker believes you are capable of performing this action.
- The speaker believes you would not do the action without his/her asking you to do so.
- You believe the speaker would like you to perform the action.
Notice that no particular words or sentence structures are required in this recipe. Someone could “command” you to answer the phone by looking pointedly back and forth between you and the ringing phone. Or they could say statements like “The phone’s ringing” or “It’s probably for you” or questions like “Is that the phone?” or “Aren’t you going to get that?”
If you’re not sure whether someone is implying a command, it’s okay to ask. “Did you want me to….?” “I’m sorry, were you asking me to…?” (This does not commit you to obeying the command, it just helps to make it clear what the intention of the speaker was.)
Questions are Commands, Too!
When you think about it, questions are really just disguised commands to give a particular piece of information (“How old is he?” = “Tell me how old he is!”). Thus, sometimes to be extra polite and avoid the appearance of imposing, people will disguise their requests for information as statements. (“I wonder how old he is,” “I wish I knew how old he was,” “You probably know how old he is,” or just “I don’t know how old he is.”) As with requests for action, no particular words or sentence structures are required. People often pass questions along just with gaze and facial expression. That is, someone asks me a question, but I don’t know the answer, so I look at you with my eyebrows raised, so you’ll supply the information.
Indirect “Dances” of Negotiation
The more trivial the action, the more blunt someone may be about asking you to do it. “Grab me a napkin” is fine, but “Lend me $500” is not. Asking someone to tell you a fact about the world is trivial; asking them to reveal something very personal is not. Typically, with non-trivial actions, people will lead up to an actual request.
First, they might be quite indirect about it, vaguely implying a need or a wish, hoping that you will volunteer to do the implied action that would solve the problem. If you do, the dance is done.
If you do not volunteer, they will gauge your reaction to their suggestion. (They will assume that you understood the disguised request, and are sending social signals in response.) They will weigh your level of apparent discomfort against the strength of their wish for you to comply. If you seem very uncomfortable, they may back off (“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that you should….”)
If you do not seem too uncomfortable and/or their wish is strong, they will be more direct (but probably still not use imperatives) in their request.
This loop may recur several times: a back-and-forth negotiation that you may think is a big waste of time, but it reassures both parties that even if they can’t both have their needs mutually satisfied on this particular point, they do both care about each other, so the relationship is strong enough to endure.
If someone persists with a request (whether explicit or implied) and you don’t want to comply…
There are multiple ways that we signal discomfort, and these signs typically co-occur, so if you are the one making the request and monitoring the signs you receive in response, it won’t matter if you miss one or two, as long as you notice others. As you get better at noticing these, you will realize that you can also get useful information as to the degree of the discomfort: the more signs there are, and the more intense the signs are, the more uncomfortable the person is feeling. If the person is “whispering” discomfort (with minimal signs), there’s a good chance you can get what you want with a bit of extra politeness, but if the person is “screaming” discomfort, you’d do better to back off!
If you just say “no,” or ignore the request, you may damage the relationship. Presumably, this person had reasons for asking you to do this thing, and you will appear to not care about them (the reasons or the person) if you just say no or ignore the request. You may feel that the person was rude, or that you really should not be asked to do this thing – but even so, if you want to preserve the relationship, you need to take some care with your reply. It’s certainly okay to refuse many requests, but doing so politely shows that you do care about the relationship.
Refusing to answer a direct question when you have the information is a hostile act. You have a constitutional right to silence, but refusing to answer a question may cause damage to the relationship (and having social relationships is a privilege, not a right). That doesn’t mean you have to answer every question people ask of you; just that you have to do some fancy politeness work to avoid giving offense. Some people will pretend they can’t answer when they just don’t want to (saying “I don’t know,” even when they do know) to avoid the extra work. Of course, there are certain things you can’t logically claim not to know, so this option isn’t always available, but even when you can do this, it’s risky. If the person finds out later that you did know, they will be angry because it will be clear that you intentionally deceived them, not to spare their feelings (which is usually the justification for “little white lies”), but to spare your own.
If you allow for some negotiation, everyone comes away happier. If you say no right away (or ignore the command), you are not allowing for negotiation. There’s always the possibility that you have misunderstood what they wanted you to do (especially if the command was indirect), or that you didn’t understand their reasons for asking. Feel free to have discussions clarifying exactly what they’re asking and why they’re asking. (This shows that you’re interested in their thoughts and feelings, their motives, their lives in general.) If you still don’t want to do what they’ve asked, you might be able to offer to do something else that would help satisfy their underlying reasons for asking. (E.g., I can’t let you borrow my car to drive to the mega-super-container store because my insurance doesn’t cover other drivers and I promised my parents I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it, but I can drive you there, shop with you, and drive you home.)
You can do this by
- directly acknowledging the relationship: “You know I love you, but…” “You’re a good friend, but….” “I really enjoy working with you,” etc.
- acknowledging your debts to them (to reassure them that you are aware of these and will reciprocate at other times): “You’ve done so much for me, but…,” “I really appreciated when you came through for me (on some particular occasion), but…,” “I know I owe you one, but…”
- promising future action (assuming an ongoing relationship): “I’ll help out next time,” “After I turn in this big project on Thursday, I’ll have plenty of time to do whatever you need me to do.” “Can I get back to you when I’m feeling better?” “I’ll make it up to you,” etc.
If someone shows signs of discomfort when you make a request
- You can back off, giving the other permission not to perform the action or answer the question: e.g., “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” or “Never mind, I’ll do it myself” or “Oh, you don’t have to tell me, if you’d rather not,” or “Sorry, that’s not really my business, is it?”
- You can explain why you made the request, to show that you’re not trying to take advantage of them, or not just being nosy, that you’re asking because it’s important, or because you care, etc.
- You can offer reciprocity. If you’re asking for an action, offer to do something for them. If you’re asking for information, offer a similar confidence, to inspire reciprocity and trust. (That is, if I’m asking you whether you’re enjoying the class we have together, I might share my own opinions about it before you tell me yours; if I’m asking you if you had a happy childhood, I might confide details of my childhood to you; etc.) If I trust you and open up to you, you’re more willing to trust me and open up to me.
Be aware that if you do not take advantage of any of these options, just letting the request hang there or repeating it insistently, the person you’re talking to will feel even more uncomfortable. They may eventually answer the question you asked (because most Americans can’t stand long pauses in conversations), or do the action you requested, or flatly refuse to do either, but they will resent you for having caused them this discomfort.
- Austin, J.L. (1975). How to do things with words, 2nd Ed. Harvard University Press.
- Birner, Betty J. (Ed.)(2012) Introduction to pragmatics. Wiley-Blackwell
- Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge University Press. .
- Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics vol. 3: Speech acts (pp. 41–58). Academic Press.
- Holtgraves, T. M. (2002). Language as social action: Social psychology and language use. Erlbaum.
- Lee, James J. and Steven Pinker. (2010.) Rationales for indirect speech: The theory of the strategic speaker. Psychological Review 117(3): 785-807.
- Peccei, Jean S. (2012). Pragmatics (language workbooks). Routledge.
- Pinker, Steven, Nowak, M. A., & Lee, J. J. (2008). The logic of indirect speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 105, 833–838.
- Searle, John. (1970). Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge University Press.
- Sperber, Daniel, & Deirdre Wilson (1986). Relevance: Communication and cognition. Harvard University Press.
Recommended (more accessible) reading
- Elgin, Suzette Haden. (1993 ). The gentle art of verbal self-defense. Barnes & Nobles.
- Elgin, Suzette Haden. (1997). How to disagree without being disagreeable. Wiley.
- Tannen, Deborah. (2011 ). That’s not what I meant! How conversational style makes or breaks relationships. Harper Perennial.
- Tannen, Deborah (2002). I only say this because I love you: Talking to your parents, partners, sibs, and kids when you’re all adults. Ballantine books.
- Wikipedia.org’s “List of English Language Idioms” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English-language_idioms